EXCLUSIVE: Defence bishop urges “missionary” chaplains to resist “compromising” their message

Si Gladman / 15 May 2023

Defence chaplains are “missionaries” and must be strong enough to “resist” pressures to “compromise their message”, according to the Anglican bishop of the Australian Defence Force.

In a report to last year’s Anglican General Synod, Bishop Grant Dibden (pictured) said the Defence Force was becoming an “increasingly difficult climate of growing secularism and pluralism” for chaplains to operate.

But he emphasised the importance of the role of chaplains as the “Anglican Church’s missionaries working directly with sailors, soldiers and aviators” in Defence.

“It is critical, therefore, that clergy who become chaplains have a missionary mindset being clear that the imperative is to both live out and proclaim the gospel winsomely with gentleness and respect. Yet they must be strong enough to resist the pressure of the ministry context to compromise their message,” he wrote.

“Under God, they demonstrate His love by awakening people to Him, sustaining and nurturing them on their faith journey, and praying and caring for them. 

“Defence chaplains often work theologically from the other person’s situation back to God rather than starting from a church or religious perspective. Defence chaplains have to live the gospel amongst many who have never heard the ‘good news of salvation’.”

The Anglican Defence Board report – available here online – shines the spotlight on the missionary nature of the Defence Force’s primary pastoral care and wellbeing support capability.

The Defence Force’s continued reliance on religious-based chaplaincy to support the pastoral and wellbeing needs of its majority non-religious workforce across Navy, Army and Air Force has come increasingly under question.

Late last year, Senator David Shoebridge told The Saturday Paper that the Defence Force needed to realise “it’s no longer 1950” and introduce a support service that reflects modern multicultural Australia.

Bishop Dibden is the current chair of the controversial taxpayer-funded committee of clerics known as the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS), which oversees the appointment of chaplains and advises Defence Force chiefs on matters relating to religion.

Collin Acton OAM, the former Director-General of Navy Chaplaincy, has accused RACS of wielding its influence over the top brass to block much-needed secular reform across the pastoral care and wellbeing support capability.

In 2020, he was successful in having a handful of secular wellbeing roles – known as Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers – introduced into Navy to help cater to the needs of the increasing numbers of non-religious personnel.

In October last year, Mr Acton told the Rationalist Society of Australia that he had been “forced out” of the Navy following a complaint from RACS to the top brass about his public advocacy for reform.

In his report, Bishop Dibden informed the Anglican General Synod of growing secularism and pluralism in Defence.

“The environment of the Defence Force, like Australian society, is becoming increasingly questioning of Christianity and of Christian chaplaincy. Secularism has been growing and this has been reflected in Navy recently introducing Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers in 2020,” he said.

“They are members of the Navy Chaplaincy Branch, are charged to provide non-religious based ‘pastoral’ care, there is no requirement for them to be adherents of a faith group and they must possess a secular ‘care’ qualification.

“There is pressure for Chaplains to be more religiously inclusive and therefore, for example, not to publicly pray ‘in Jesus’ name’.”

Bishop Dibden also noted that, in 2019, Defence diversified RACS by adding Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu representatives.

“At the working level some chaplains from these religions are being appointed in what have traditionally been Christian chaplain’s (sic) positions.”

He also alerted the General Synod to increasing campaigns by pro-secular groups in exposing “religious privilege in our armed forces”.

By encouraging proselytising in the Defence Force, RACS appears to be operating outside its purpose and responsibilities, as stated in the Memorandum of Arrangement with the Commonwealth.

In the Anglican News magazine shortly after his appointment to RACS in 2020, Bishop Dibden said: “I want to encourage the chaplains to make disciples who make other disciples.”

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Image: Department of Defence (Commonwealth of Australia).

All the more reason.